Three decades ago Israel faced a serious threat from missiles fired from Iraq. These Scud missiles, used by Saddam Hussein’s regime, revealed how vulnerable Israel was.
Israel had encountered this before in previous decades, including threats from Lebanon and Egyptian missile programs. However, the 1990s spurred a revolution in Israeli thinking that led to the development of multi-layered air defense systems. Today’s Iron Dome is one of the major achievements of that and it is now celebrating 10 years in operation with some 2,500 interceptions.
This is unprecedented. No other country has been subjected to the sort of missile threats Israel faces and no other country has really created an integrated multi-layered air defense system like Israel has. Iron Dome is key to Israel’s success and it is recognized as such across the region and the world.
Years ago, in the lead-up to the 2009 war in Gaza – what became known as Operation Cast Lead – I was in Sderot near the border. The nice community had been bombarded by Hamas-made Qassam rockets. Houses were damaged and it felt almost like a ghost town. It wasn’t, but the local residents were despondent. They felt abandoned.
Hamas had taken control of Gaza after Israel left in the Disengagement. Instead of thanking Israel for leaving, Hamas turned Gaza into a rocket launch pad. They smuggled in weapons and know-how, relying on Iranian support and others. Eventually, after the Arab Spring, they would rapidly increase the range of their rockets so they could threaten most of Israel, but in 2009 they were just getting started.
I was in Sderot with a group volunteering to help the locals. At one point, while out walking to boost morale in the community, we heard the “red alert” sirens and had to crouch next to a brick wall. There was no protection and all we could do was wait for the impact and hope it didn’t hit us.
In the end the Qassam threat was one that harassed the people but didn’t cause many casualties. Nevertheless it had to be stopped. Israel went to war in Gaza in 2009 and again in 2012 and 2014, at least in part due to the rocket threats. Yet what changed Israel’s calculus over those years was the development of Iron Dome.
AFTER 2009, Iron Dome’s development and deployment suddenly transformed the way war was being fought. Israel’s urgency to do something about the rocket threat was reduced by the safety umbrella of Iron Dome. Public pressure was lessened and the government gained time to breathe and think about its actions.
This has been made even more clear since the so-called “Great March of Return” that began in March 2018 in Gaza. By December 2019, some 2,600 rockets and mortars had been fired at Israel in the 2018-2019 period alone. However, there was no major operation in Gaza; Israel used precision airstrikes to punish Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israel even killed Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu Al-Ata in November 2019 but didn’t launch an invasion of Gaza. Contrast this with the way Israel had tried to kill Mohammed Deif in August 2014.
Israel is not a large country and rocket attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah or others are a major threat. Rockets can target population centers as well as critical infrastructure, like Israel’s airport or the major ports, or even chemicals like ammonium nitrate storage. Enemies have targeted these facilities before, either by accident or on purpose, sometimes with plans and sometimes during conflicts.
Rocket attacks are also deadly. In 2006, eight people were killed in a Hezbollah rocket attack on Haifa’s main railway depot during the war. In 2014 Hamas said it had tried to target the nuclear facility at Dimona. Flights were canceled at Ben-Gurion Airport in July 2014 during the war when a rocket landed nearby. All this indicates how disastrous a war would be if Israel didn’t have the air defenses it does.
The development of Iron Dome came about just in time as Hamas rocket ranges increased. Hamas developed rockets that can strike at a range of some 150 km. However, back in 2009 before Iron Dome was rolled out, the rockets had a much shorter range. This meant Tel Aviv was not under fire. During the period of time around the 2009 war there was a lot of grumbling that Israel’s elites had abandoned the South, letting rockets lay waste to Sderot because the community of 27,000 residents was seen as expendable. Yet by 2012 Hamas was able to reach deep into Israel, targeting Jerusalem for the first time.
The miracle of Iron Dome, developed by necessity in the wake of the 2006 war with Hezbollah, was that it came online just in time to meet the emerging threat from Hamas. It is interesting that its development, which was designed at least in part to confront the much more nefarious threat from Hezbollah’s massive arsenal of some 150,000 rockets, has been used primarily against Hamas since 2010. This matters because Iron Dome gave Israeli civilians a sense of near-total security against rocket attacks. Some became complacent since then, running outside to film Iron Dome interceptions rather than running inside to shelter. Nevertheless the system proved effective. It also became more precise at going after different types of threats, from larger rockets to maneuvering missiles and drones to mortars. Siren systems also became better at warning only those directly impacted, not whole cities, when there were threats.
This means that Israel developed a solution to meet a unique type of threat, short-range rockets, and that solution quickly outpaced the threats. When Iran used drones and cruise missiles to strike at Saudi Arabia in September 2019, the Iron Dome system – and its partners in David’s Sling and Arrow, Israel’s other longer-range air defense systems – were better integrated against the new threats. This means that since last December Israel has been increasingly announcing and unveiling new abilities for Iron Dome. A decade after its first use it now can do much more and can confront the new threats that are emerging.
One crucial problem it faces is the concern that a major war with Hezbollah will mean Israel will face thousands of rockets a day and that the system won’t be able to be used the same way it was in the past. It will need to protect critical infrastructure against those salvos. Israel also faces the prospect of a war involving pro-Iranian groups firing rockets from Syria and even Iraq. That means Israel’s defense systems will have to do more.
WHERE IRON Dome has proven particularly successful is being a system that meshes well with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reticence to gamble on new wars against enemies. Netanyahu prefers the status quo and managing the conflict. This includes terminology like “mowing the grass” in Gaza, a concept some think refers to a kind of “whack-a-mole” strategy on Israel’s borders.
Israel has reportedly launched some 1,500 air strikes on Iranian targets since 2011 in Syria. Israel has not had to confront large-scale rocket attacks from Syria, though. Only a few salvos in 2018 and early 2019 were the worst that came from Syria. Questions remain about what a threat from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza, and now even from Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, could mean for the Jewish state. Israel has deployed Patriot air defense systems to Eilat allegedly to deal with the threats from Yemen.
The Patriot systems in Israel have been one of the legacies of US support since the 1990s. It is worth mentioning that Israel learned from the experience of the 1991 Gulf War when Patriots proved they had problems intercepting Saddam’s Scuds, and Israel went on to build Arrow and David’s Sling and Iron Dome. Now Israel’s Iron Dome is also being used by the US, which has acquired two batteries and may want more. Israel also sells air defense systems to India and other countries. These include a series of other systems and various technologies linked to them. For instance, Israel sells its famed Iron Dome radar to the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The radar is built by Israel Aerospace Industries subsidiary Elta. Iron Dome interceptors and the battery are built by Rafael.
Why this matters is that Israel’s defense industry also benefits from Israel’s success at fielding these systems. Israel developed them to deal with a singular kind of threat but quickly found that other countries in the region and globally want systems like this. Because Israel’s systems are operational and proven and work in a real-world environment, they have added value.
Questions remain about what comes next. Iron Dome gave Israel strategic depth and breathing space and enables Netanyahu to avoid new wars in Gaza. That was particularly true in the fall of 2018 when defense minister Avigdor Liberman resigned over Israel’s unwillingness to go back into Gaza. Israel has to wonder how the system will stack up against a major war with Hezbollah or Iranian-backed proxies. It has yet to face this test.
Nevertheless, 2,500 interceptions have been a game-changer for Israel. Without Iron Dome, much of Israel might have looked like the forlorn, despondent town I found in Sderot in 2009.
IRON DOME: THE FACTS
• Designed and developed jointly by Israel and the US
• Considered one of the most effective anti-missile systems in the world
• Identifies airborne missiles and calculates their landing spot
• Intercepts only missiles that will not fall harmlessly
• Each Iron Dome anti-missile rocket costs about $20,000
• An Iron Dome battery covers a range of about 150 kilometers
• The Iron Dome’s Tamir interceptor rocket travels at more than twice the speed of sound
• Declared operational in March 2011
• Its first successful interception was the next month, on April 7
• Less than a year later, in March 2012 alone, it shot down more than 50 rockets from Gaza headed toward populated areas – including Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon
• To date, the Iron Dome has intercepted more than 2,500 enemy rockets
• The IDF claims an 85% to 90% success rate in intercepting incoming projectiles
– Jerusalem Post staff